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6 Life Lessons In Tech

camckin10 profile image Chelsey McKinney ・9 min read

Please Note:
This post that you are about to read is very personal to me. Part of my healing came from taking the time to really examine the situations and my feelings, and pulling the broader lessons or insight from my experiences. Everyone has their own journey may end up in a different circumstance. For this reason, I do not plan to use real names or dig into the nitty-gritty details of my life. I hope what I have to say will make you think about being accessible, welcoming and respectful to all kinds of developers – and, if that happens, then that is awesome.

This post is about my personal experiences that led me to rediscover my faith in programming. Also, the few life lessons I have gained from starting over. I started to teach myself programming online about 3 years. I was at this point in my tech journey where I was looking for as much support as I could get.

I had started an online Front End Web Development coding bootcamp but there wasn’t enough structure, so I found other opportunities like a part-time in person coding bootcamp, CodeAcademy, Khan Academy and an organization called Girl Develop It. GDI is a national organization that teaches adult women, 18 years and older, computer programming.

GDI had a chapter here in the Twin Cities called GDI Minneapolis and overtime I became super involved. In December 2017, GDI Mpls asked for members who are interested in becoming chapter leaders. Chapter leaders are co-organizers of the group wearing many hats such as –coordinator, teacher, etc. Three of us, two white women and me, signed up to be the next group of CL’s. I had only been in my role as a CL for several months when conflicts transpired.

The two chapter leaders discussed my work for GDI as if it were very different from theirs--in speed, in quality, in cost effectiveness. They discussed me as if I were not linked into the same system, or operating according to the national group protocols. My colleagues, told me (and only me) I was disrespectful, less productive, and---since I was not a part of the initial conversation, I was not allowed to respond. This painful argument took place online, and eventually led me to leave GDI Mpls.

After GDI's exclusionary behavior was made public, people in the community rallied behind me and sought to address the harm they did. However, that wouldn't stop the reliving of trauma to come. I reviewed this situations for weeks, reliving the sequence of events, hovering over the negative comments, and freaking out about my online good intentions and hard work being destroyed for no reason.

Several months later, in December 2018, there was an episode of the podcast, #causeascene, hosted by another Black female in tech, Kim Crayton. In this episode, a former HQ employee at GDI, talked to Kim about the multiple micro aggressions and overall exclusionary behavior exhibited by the staff members in the HQ office based in Philly. Through this podcast, it was becoming clearer how harmful tech spaces can be for People of Color.

I found out about #causeascene from Twitter, because the public response to the growing GDI issues was so overwhelming. It had been months since I had left GDI Mpls when this podcast episode was released. Every single month since my departure, I had heard of new information about GDI’s questionable practices. Several articles have been written about GDI with current and past chapter leaders coming forward to write letters to the board. Several chapters have ceased activities since then.

[NOTE:More information including the current status of GDI chapters can be found here:(http://an-open-letter-to-gdi-board.com/timeline/ )]

The day I listened to the #causeascene podcast episode, I couldn’t get through the entire episode because I was laughing and crying. After I laughed and cried, I returned to a feeling I had pushed aside: anger. I was really angry, so why hadn’t I let myself be angry? This whirlwind of emotions led me to my first life lesson:

1 Be emotional.

Being in denial was not helping my healing process at all. Honestly, I would say that I hadn’t even begun to heal until I cried that day. I was withholding my emotions because I did not want to think about the hurt that I felt from GDI.

It should be noted that although I was comfortable crying, laughing, and venting, I was not comfortable doing other things, namely anything related to technology. The day of the argument with my two chapter co-leaders, the effect was immediate: I stopped coding. A lot of hurtful things were said, and for my sanity, I had to take a break.

I took a tech hiatus (from mid-August to mid-November) of 2018. When I stopped programming, I seriously thought that I wouldn’t program ever again. The idea of thinking about functions gave me anxiety. It was the first time I was not doing anything tech-related in close to 2 years

Taking a break from programming meant that I also took a break from the tech community. I stopped going to meetups, I unfollowed all the tech groups and essentially did non-tech things. With tech no longer being my entire life, I had all this free time to get other things I had been meaning.

For instance, I bought a PS2 and began to play Kingdom Hearts 2. I started to work out three times a week and began to reading fiction again after only reading tech books for the last several months. I hung out with friends, I binge-watched all the Netflix TV shows on ‘My List.,’ and most importantly I listened to a crap ton of Whitney Houston.

Being in the midst of this tech reprieve,I discovered my second life lesson:

2 Taking a break is awesome. I highly recommended.

I got my time back which meant I made my time for me. I could hang out with friends whenever or actually cook during the week. When I had made this transition into tech, I stopped doing the things I truly loved and there was really no reason for me to have stopped in the first place. I have found that in order for your life to have some sort of balance (because life isn’t always so put together), you must focus on what makes you happy. Working all the time (at work and outside of work) wears you down, and generally does not make you fun person.

A few months into my tech reprieve, I was on Twitter and I saw a tweet about a developer mentioning the “100 Days of Code” challenge and decide to accept. I had a general idea of what I was going to accomplish during the 100 days and it did not require a detailed plan. My main goal was to turn on my computer, open up my terminal and text editor without anxiety. Making the decision to start the challenge, gave me my third life lesson:

3 You have to start.

You have to start somewhere...anywhere. It was up to me to find the motivation. You had to mentally show up before you could begin any part of this competition. This challenge was exactly that: a challenge. It was powerful for me to even view programming in a positive light once again.

So I had decided to begin this challenge but my concerns due to my past experiences made me apprehensive. The first week was difficult because I was finding my footing. After some days had passed, I got back into the routine of coding. Learning to program and maintain those skills up is definitely a muscle you will always have to flex.

When it came to this challenge, I return to the basics of programming. I provided myself a palette cleanser of sorts. For example, I made a fan site without using Bootstrap just to see if I could do it. I started to learn another programming language and that brought out my learning and/or studying methods from when I first learned JS.

What was really interesting to me was how much “unlearning” I had to do before I learned new things. By that I mean, even though I received a lot of education from Girl Develop It, I realized that Girl Develop It didn’t make me a developer. I made myself a developer. Before GDI, I found the motivation to start exploring online and using tutorials. I wanted more support so I found an in-person option which was Girl Develop It, and later on coding bootcamps.

Coming to this realization led me to my fourth life lesson:

4 Make your own space.

This can be mental, emotional, physical or all three. There was a time when I didn’t create my own space because I was so busy making space for others. For mental space, I made sure to give myself daily positive reinforcement. I was back in the saddle and I didn’t want to fall off (figuratively speak). I paced myself and took things slow, which made completing the daily tasks of the coding challenge more manageable. For emotional space, I would give myself time to deal with that emotion. If I was frustrated about something, I allowed myself the space to do so. If I was really struggling with a bug, then I would take some time to feel sad about it, and then move on to trying to find a solution. For my physical space, I created a haven. In my apartment, I rearranged my room so I could wake up facing the natural light and bought noise cancelling headphones. I decorated my desk with Funko Pop characters, stickers and rubber ducks. I put influential women on my walls, and got a calendar to mark the days of the challenge. Anyway I could make my space my own, I did.

At this point, I had cried, laughed, took a break, started something new, and made my own space. Around the time I was in the middle of this challenge, I was feeling extremely happy. There wasn’t one specific thing or event that made me feel this way. I think it was a combination of things: coding again, hanging out with fellow techies, building things, etc. Most importantly, I started to feel that I could program again. This good feeling inside of me kept growing and one day I thought to myself, I matter. I’m important. I deserve to be here.

This affirmation is my fifth life lesson:

5 You matter. You are important. You deserve to be here.

Remember that the space you occupy has meaning. Do not let an individual or a group convince that you are not important, or otherwise.

Despite my positive affirmations, my healing did not speed up like I wanted it to. I wanted to get to a point where I was able to think about my time in tech groups and not feel a flash of anger followed by a wave of sadness. I definitely thought that starting and completing the challenge would cure me from all the anger and hurt that I had obtained throughout all of this nonsense but, it didn’t.

Thinking that there was a 5 min (or 100 days of coding) cure was not helpful for my healing process because it just put a band-aid over my grief. In order for me to get “cured,” I had to take the necessary steps that would start the healing process. (In this case it would be doing the challenge, to see about my relationship with technology).

My expectation of a magical cure is where I found my final life lesson:

6 Healing is a lengthy process.

It’s new, normal and uncomfortable at the same time. I was healing before the challenge, every single day of the challenge and after the challenge. Sharing my experience is a part of my healing, and the coding I have continued to do daily since completing the challenge also plays a part in my healing.

Undoubtedly, starting over in programming gave me a new chapter in my life. I’m a programmer, and programmers often have to try multiple things in order to find a solution. This was another stepping stone in my journey, and I’m excited to see what happens next. That being said, I would like to thank all the people who were really supportive during this chapter. All of the conversations I’ve had...big or small, gave me the inspiration to tell my story. Also, thank you to the following women of color who were extremely brave in sharing their stories online about their experiences in the tech community. These women are the catalysts, the rule breakers, who put themselves on the line personally and professionally. Without any of them, I would have never had the courage to tell my side of the story. So thank you.

*This post was originally given as a talk at Minnebar in April 2019. The presentation was entitled, "100 Days, Racism, and Starting Over: How I regained my faith in programming."

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